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(Bloomberg) -- Last year, one of Matt Wilson’s wine clients asked him to orchestrate a dinner in Las Vegas, with a $100,000 wine budget. Easy for Wilson; he rounded up such rarities as 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle, 1985 La Tache, and 1834 Madeira. But he also had to convince chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin to give the 16 guests a cooking lesson and prepare the dinner.
Wilson, who launched Napa-based Company Fine Wine last fall, is what I call a “wine whisperer,” a category of white-glove wine fixers for the ultra-wealthy that’s growing rapidly. Some call themselves personal wine advisers. Others, such as Wilson, function more like private wine merchants. All offer a range of services to help cash-rich, time-poor aficionados manage their wine lives.
Disorganized cellar? They’ll take an inventory of your collection and tell you which bottles are ready to drink.
Don’t know what you should buy? They’ll find out what kinds of wines you like and be your personal shopper.
Panting for a rare bottle? They have the inside connections to get it.
Need to know what wine to order at a restaurant? Call their cellphones.
And if you crave a lunch with a reclusive winemaker, they’ll organize it—and maybe even accompany you.
How to Get One
Most wine whisperers operate on word-of-mouth recommendations. There’s no single business model for how they work, and the range of services they offer aren’t set in stone. Some will bid for you at auction; others won’t touch a paddle.
“You have to be flexible,” explained Wilson, who helped found Soutirage, a similar type of firm in Napa, before going out on his own. “Everything depends on what a client wants.” He counts 25 billionaires among his clients, who include Joe Schoendorf, a partner at venture capital firm Accel, and David Viniar, former chief financial officer at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. who is now on its board of directors; both also serve on Company Fine Wine’s advisory board.
Wilson has an inventory of older wines to offer his clients (he just spent $1.3 million on Bordeaux), and wraps services into the price for those they buy from him.Most wine advisers charge an annual retainer and will take on short-term projects for a negotiated fee, a good starting point for establishing a relationship.
London’s Susie de Paolis, of De Paolis Ltd., works differently. She’s an independent private wine adviser who sources wines that individual clients want through merchants she knows personally—and trusts. One of the founders of merchant Armit Wines, she went out on her own in 2001 and has since garnered a stellar reputation. She handles about 20 wine collectors at any time; some have cellars worth 5 million pounds to 10 million pounds. Stuart Rose, former executive chairman of British retailer Marks & Spencer Plc, credits de Paolis with “saving his wine life.”
Her first step is creating a database of every wine a client owns, showing its current value, when it should be drunk, what there is too much of, and what great vintages are missing. Right now, she’s combing a client’s list to decide which bottles should be sent to the cellar in his new country house. Ongoing advice starts at 5,000 pounds and goes up, depending on the size of a wine portfolio.
The Personal Touch
The top 50 or 60 spenders at London-based wine merchant BI Fine Wine & Spirits each splash 100,000 pounds a year or more. The company's private client department, like those at the city’s other serious merchants, is highly attuned to their needs. “Wine is emotional and personal,” said David Thomas, who handles many of these elite accounts. “You have to know their palates and spend time with them to advise them.” Many start out as beginning collectors and gradually ratchet up annual purchases at BI.
These clients especially prize experiences that money can’t buy. Thomas has arranged a lunch at Bordeaux cult property Le Pin, for one. For another: tickets to a Coldplay concert, followed by tasting of rare wines with the band. BI has flown its wines to government ministers and clients’ yachts. The merchant is now expanding into Asia.
Around the World
As with other types of personal advisers, some specialize. David Beckwith of New York-based Grand Cru Wine Consulting, for example, satisfies the dreams of some of the biggest Burgundy collectors around. Beckwith has 20 clients, mostly in finance, real estate, and the law, on yearly retainer ($2,000 a month and up). His most difficult request from a client was planning three nights of dinners with wine at three different restaurants in San Sebastian, Spain.
Some specialize in certain parts of the world. Charles Curtis, the former head of wine in Asia for Christie’s auction house and a certified Master of Wine, handles a dozen or so projects and clients a year through his consultancy, WineAlpha. Most of his clients live in Asia, though he’s just added a Texan. “They may need help selling a million dollars worth of wine from their cellars,” he said. “And they often want a sounding board. Should I buy this? Is it a good price?” The number of Asian collectors is exploding, and many want advice on how to buy in London, Curtis said. His Master of Wine status reassures them of his expertise, as does his status as a Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice appraiser. Annual fees range from $12,000 to $40,000.
Peter Thustrup, based in France, is a rare wine dealer who tutors beginning collectors in how to collect and live with wine, giving advice not just on what to buy, but how to use wine in business and social life. He takes on about 25 clients, each of whom plan to spend a minimum of $100,000 on wine in the next 12 months, and he bases his fee on a percentage of what they spend.
Just about every week, I hear about some new wine adviser scheme. Before you hire one, know what you want your adviser to do, and have specific ideas of what you like to drink and how much you want to spend. And don’t forget to make sure the adviser’s business is financially sound.
Could chatbots take on the wine whisperer's role in the future, reducing the cost? It’s hard to imagine being able to say, "Siri, get me some 1982 Petrus," and having a case turn up in your cellar a few days later. But maybe.
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